Archives

Renewed Faith of the Yellow Gorse

Brandon Creek_0359

Brandon Creek, Dingle Peninsula, Ireland ©2018 Thea Summer Deer

Wandering across the faerie hills on the wild west coast of Ireland, the only sound I heard was that of the wind and the waves, falling water and the occasional caw of a raven. We had come to this mystical landscape at Europe’s westernmost point on the Dingle Peninsula to offer gratitude and forgiveness to our ancestors at an ancient ceremonial site called the “Drummer’s Mound.” It had been a life-long dream to visit Ireland and if the old idiom is true, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” then the weave of magic in my life might have a wee bit of its root in my Irish ancestry.

A little further down the narrow path I heard a quiet, cricket like song that beckoned to me, so I followed it. Stepping off the ordinary path as if through a portal I discovered at the source of the sound a plant with delicate yellow flowers. The plant itself was unfamiliar but the flowers were vaguely reminiscent of mullein flowers, and aside from that it bore no other resemblance. Certainly, it must be medicinal or I wouldn’t have been drawn to it, so I took a photo with my smartphone for later identification.

Gorseflowers

Ulex europaeus

With the sun setting in the West and the wind blowing cool against us from the north, we proceeded to gather atop a wide, flat surfaced mound with a large flat rock half embedded in the earth at its center. There the altar cloth was lain. It was on this cloth that we would place two items representing our ancestor or ancestors for which we had come to pray.

I reverently approached the altar, laying my items gently at its edge. As I lightly pressed them against the cloth I promptly received a finger prick. An unseen plant lying beneath the surface had drawn blood. How appropriate I thought, a blood offering to the ancestors. And then we prayed: I am sorry, please forgive me, I forgive you, I love you, thank you.

As I looked out over the hills I could feel something lifting and then a wave of gratitude from the unseen worlds. The ancestors had been waiting for me here, for this very moment, and we were walking each other home.

Thea_0421

Thea in front of the Drummer’s Mound

The next morning brought waves of fog like clouds rolling over the tops of the mountains to the east as I sat sipping my tea and watching the sun rise. Curious, I took out my phone and pulled up the photo of the plant to which I had been called. My search revealed Yellow Gorse, Ulex europaeus, a member of the pea family (Fabaceae) which grows well near the sea and is clearly a feature that lights up the Irish landscape.

“Kissing’s out of fashion, when the gorse is out of blossom.” – A traditional jest as gorse is thought to always be in bloom

Yellow Gorse’s bright yellow flowers are aligned with the sun god Lugh, the Celtic god of light. The scent and taste of the blossoms grow stronger in the sunlight and mildly resembles almond and coconut. They make a wonderfully aromatic flower tea and were also used for dying cloth a saffron color. Dying cloth was an art and considered a magical process in early Ireland to be carried out only by women until the advance of the patriarchy.

Its Irish name is Aiteann; aith meaning sharp and tenn, meaning lacerating due to its prickly nature and fierce thorns. Aiteann is considered to belong to the Sidhe, or faerie folk and thought to guard entrances to the otherworld, therefore sacred or cursed depending on your belief. Yellow Gorse is tied up in Ireland’s history and mythology, embodying the polarity of opposites: good and bad, healing and wounding; nurturing and dominating, fierce and protecting. My belief was that we were standing on a sacred faerie mound protected by Sidhe as evidenced by my finger prick. The unseen plant beneath the altar cloth was Yellow Gorse.

Aiteann is an evergreen native shrub that is highly flammable and used to fire traditional bread ovens. It was also gathered to be burned on the ceremonial fires of Beltaine, and used for lighting the other nine sacred woods: Birch, Rowan, Ash, Alder, Willow, Hawthorn, Oak, Holly and Hazel. Beltaine falls on May 1st, also known as Green Man Day, the day my husband was born and one of the reasons he is affectionately called the “GreenMan.” With the advance of Christianity this celebration was replaced with May Day.

Sabrina Rollain_0387

Drummer’s Mound ©2018 Thea Summer Deer

As I searched to discover the medicinal value of Yellow Gorse what I learned is that this plant’s medicine mostly lies in its use as a flower essence. The flowers are recommended for hopelessness, loss of faith or for those who think themselves incurable. I marveled at how complimentary this felt considering the invoking of ancestral spirits that had taken place the day before. And sometimes we need only to invoke the spirit of a plant to receive its healing medicine.

My Irish grandfather had died of alcoholism, thinking himself incurable. The ancestors before him sinking into hopelessness through alcoholism, famine, slavery and displacement. The loss of faith came through the institutional abuses of church and state. My prayers had been heard and the ancestors had responded with gratitude for my journey to acknowledge their suffering and willingness to forgive. Forgiving is not always easy, nor is it forgetting, excusing, condoning, or regretting. Forgiveness is a field of energy that releases all placed within it so that we can be restored.

“Gorse lost all hope and said, I can go no further; you go along, but I shall stay here as I am until death relieves my sufferings.” – Dr. Edward Bach, 1934

The flower essence of Aiteann helps us to see things in a different light. Some could go no further and some went along, carrying the light of hope into the future. That was the gift of the ancestors to us – our very breath and life. May the light prevail, faith be restored, and forgiveness be yours…

Blessing, by John O’Donohue

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

Brandon Creek_0350

Wild West Coast of Ireland ©2018 Thea Summer Deer

 

Advertisements

Allergy Sufferers Get Ahead with Purple Dead-nettle

dead nettle

Lamium purpureum © 2016 Thea Summer Deer

It is Spring and a carpet of Purple Dead-Nettle is covering my garden. Even though I had put the vegetable garden to bed, tucking it in with straw, this “weed” decidedly took over. These Dead heads not only look like a weed, they smell like one too! Unlike the followers of a particular psychedelic rock band there is nothing distinctive about this plant that would indicate it might be edible, useful or medicinal. While I was never a Dead Head I do march to the beat of a slightly different drummer, and just because I harvest, juice and infuse what most people think of as useless weeds it doesn’t mean I’m tripping or that I smell bad, but it does mean that I’m ahead of allergy season.

dead nettle_1522

Introduced from Europe and listed as an invasive species in some parts of North America it can frequently be found growing alongside Henbit Dead-nettle, Lamium amplexicaule. Amplexicaule means “clasping” and refers to how the leaves grab the stem. Both have similar leaves and bright purple flowers, but the difference between the two can be seen in the leaves. Purple Dead-nettle’s leaves are stalked on the flower stem compared to the un-stalked leaves of Henbit Dead-nettle.

If you were called to inspect this plant more closely you would find that it has a square stem typical of the mints but the smell would never let on that it is in the mint family. It smells more like earth and grass with the flowering tops and leaves being edible. The harvested young aerial parts can be finely chopped and used in sauces, salads or as a spring vegetable and while it may be nutritious it has no flavor of great interest. It is one of the first plants to flower in the southeast where I live and may continue flowering throughout the year even during the milder winter months providing a food source to bees (and humans!) when few other nectar sources are available.

Purple Dead-nettle has long been used in folk medicine in Europe, Asia and Africa and unlike stinging nettles (Urtica) it has no sting and is therefore considered, “dead.” There is evidence of anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and free radical scavenging properties comparable to that of ascorbic acid. It can be used fresh or dried and made into a tea or tincture for allergic inflammation. A natural source of flavonoids including quercetin Purple Dead-nettle can improve immune system performance while reducing sensitivity to allergens and inhibiting inflammation. The anti-allergy properties of flavonoids come from their ability to reduce the release of histamine. Research has shown that L. purpureum is significantly anti-inflammatory with pain-reducing properties and works through inhibiting the release of prostaglandins, the principle mediator for inflammation in allergies and chronic inflammatory conditions. This is good news for allergy sufferers (see recommendations below.) The whole plant has also been used to relieve pain in rheumatism and other arthritic ailments. A rich source of antibacterial essential oils Purple Dead-nettle has a wide range of antimicrobial activity and antifungal properties, which may be useful for staph, E. coli and candida.

800px-Illustration_Lamium_purpureum0

Never before has one weed so thoroughly taken over my garden. It definitely has my attention. Previously L. purpureum was only vaguely familiar to me, as I had seen it on my daily walks growing along the roadside. It was so far off my radar as a medicinal plant that I had trouble remembering what it was. My apprentice pointed it out to me one day on a plant walk and I felt totally incompetent asking her – what is that plant again? In my defense, it is indeed rather obscure in the herbal literature. There is still so much we don’t know, but I do know that our medicine is never any further than where we are right now.

Recommendations:

Taking Purple Dead-nettle when you suffer from allergies will help prevent secondary infections of the sinus, throat and lower respiratory tract. There are no known contraindications. Purple Dead-nettle’s actions have not been extensively researched and documented but may include: anti-inflammatory, astringent, diuretic, diaphoretic, antimicrobial, antifungal and purgative. Collect entire above ground, aerial parts for food and medicine. I am happy to report that due to the following protocol I am now allergy free!

dead nettle infusion_1525Tincture: 1-2 ml 3x/day (1:5 in 40%)

Infusion: 1 cup boiling water over 1 heaping teaspoon dried herb and infuse covered for 10 minutes. Strain and drink as often as desired. To use as a daily tonic for chronic conditions put 1 oz. dried herb in a quart jar, or 1/3 jar filled with chopped fresh herb, fill with boiling water and cover. Let stand for 3-4 hours and drink one quart per day just prior to and at the start of allergy season.

Additional Recommendations:

Supplements: This supplemental regimen may be continued throughout the allergy season. Quercetin (800 mg) with Bromelain (165mg) 3x/day, NOW is a good brand. Bioflavonoids (1,000 mg) 2x/day, and Vit. C (1,000 mg) 3x/day.

Learn more: Spring & The Wood Element 

All content except where otherwise noted © 2016 Thea Summer Deer

References:

The Weed and the Vine: Anecdotal Evidence for Nature’s Antidote

By Thea Summer Deer with Jamie MacLeod

Jewelweed (Impatients capensis)

Impatients capensis

Entering the Pisgah National Forest we journeyed over the creek and into the woods to discover the blooming crowns of jewelweed. It made me wonder if jewel-weed isn’t some king of oxymoron like cruel-kindness or definitely-maybe. But there is no maybe about it – she is definitely a jewel of a weed.Jamie Woods

The intention for this summer day was for my apprentice, Jamie, and I to harvest the aerial parts of jewelweed in all of its abundance and learn more about her medicine. Ice cube trays full of fresh juice from the stem and leaves would be frozen, popped into baggies and stored in the freezer awaiting the aftermath of someone’s unfortunate encounter with poison ivy, oak or sumac. Even an insect bite or a reactive sting from our dear friend stinging nettle can be soothed by the astringent and anti-inflammatory combination of jewelweed along with the numbing effect of ice.

Jamie_JewelweedEquipped with a large plastic bag we gathered about ten jewelweed plants, just enough for juicing through a Champion juicer. You can also chop then succus the aerial parts of jewelweed in a blender or food processor with just enough water to cover in order to release the gel-like soothing mucilage. While out in the woods you can simply rub the fresh plant between the palms of your hands for immediate use as a poultice and to prevent a reaction to poison ivy. It is believed that jewelweed is more effective at washing the oil away that causes a rash from poison ivy than soap. Typically jewelweed and poison ivy can be found in the same area making it a very convenient antidote.

Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis is in the Balsaminaceae, “Touch-Me-Not” family. It is a two to five foot tall annual plant that often forms large colonies in moist or wet habitats. Growing in colonies as it does makes it possible to harvest many plants with very little effort by pulling them up in bunches and trimming off the roots. Once harvested jewelweed wilts quickly. Its alternate and ovate shaped leaves are one to four inches long and are water-repellent. The entire plant is smooth and translucent and after a rain become covered with beads of water that reflect the light presenting a jewel-like appearance and giving it the common name, jewelweed.

jewelweed

I. capensis

I. pallida

I. pallida

Jewelweed flowers are orange or yellow and hang like pendants from a thread-like stalk. They are irregular, with five petals: the upper two are united; the lower three separate with reddish brown spots. I. capensis has orange flowers while I. pallida has yellow flowers. Both species have the same medicinal properties. Jewelweed blooms from July to September and is best harvested during June or July. In late fall the ripe seedpods can be eaten and taste similar to walnuts. It’s common name, “touch-me-not: describes how the ripe seed pods explode when touched, flinging seeds far from the plant.

Jamieweb100_1333Not satisfied with just one hike into the woods to admire the jewel like faces of her flowers a few short weeks later we found ourselves hiking out again. This time it was along the Oconaluftee River in the Cherokee National Forest down a path lined with Cherokee medicinal plants. It was here that we found the largest patch of jewelweed we had ever seen. It was literally over our heads. The Cherokee used jewelweed juice for all of the same purposes mentioned above.

According to folklore jewelweed is always found growing near poison ivy, and we found this to be true on both of our hikes into the forest. Poison ivy is actually an imposter and not a true ivy (Hedera). A trailing or climbing vine it is most commonly found along tree line breaks at the edge of the forest and is only somewhat shade tolerant. Development of real estate adjacent to undeveloped land has engendered its formation. Poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans, has doubled since the 1960’s and will double again as a result of the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  These elevated levels of carbon dioxide from global warming are creating bigger, stronger poison ivy plants that produce more urushiol, the oil that causes a poison ivy rash. The urushiol isn’t just more plentiful it also more potent.  A super good reason to keep some jewelweed ice cubes in your freezer.Jamie YellowJW100_1334

Both poison ivy and jewelweed are considered invasive but are not as damaging as invasive exotics. These native plants tend to take over an area but they don’t do as much damage because they evolved with native insects and other plants. Jewelweed’s ability to aggressively reseed enables it to out-compete other native vegetation.  We saw evidence of this on the Cherokee trail when we discovered a literal forest of jewelweed.  Its replacement of perennial vegetation on riverbanks may lead to increased soil erosion because of its delicate roots.  It also produces alluring nectar, which may potentially attract pollinators away from other native plants reducing their seed set.

photo by Marion Skydancer

photo by Marion Skydancer

In Timothy Lee Scott’s controversial book, Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives, he asks, “So what happens if we were to shift our point of view and see an invasive plant (weed) as useful?”  He points out the waste of energy and the millions of dollars spent enlisting various invasive plant coalitions, universities, environmental conservation groups, state and federal agencies, along with the herbicide industry, in an attempt to eradicate invasive plants.  The use of machinery and millions of gallons of herbicides polluting both soil and water throughout the world is costing us billions.

Clinical herbalist, Michael Tierra argues on the topic of whether or not to control invasive plants depends on the invasive. Perhaps poison ivy is phytoremediating carbon dioxide and we would do better to look at how we have contributed to the invasion through the destruction and disturbance of habitat.  If poison ivy is the enemy than jewelweed is a fortunate antidote.

If we remain open to the intelligence of plants we will see that there is an interrelationship between invasives and the broader web of life.  I, personally, even after a lifetime of camping, hiking and hanging out in the woods and many direct encounters with poison ivy have been fortunate to never experience a rash.  As an herbalist, however, I feel a responsibility to keep as many medicines as I can on hand, like jewelweed ice cubes in my freezer.

While out weeding my garden this week I pondered the dilemma of weeds and invasives. Certainly we have always been in partnership with nature, creating beautiful spaces by removing what doesn’t serve the garden landscape and leaving other areas to nature’s hand.  It is a partnership gone awry as we disconnect from nature, but the evidence is mostly anecdotal so I offer you my testimony in favor of nature’s hand.  Being the eternal optimist I am hopeful that we will continue to find the value in weeds, leave well enough alone where we may, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

References:

Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians by Patricia Kyritsi Howell

Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives, by Timothy Lee Scott.

Study with Thea Summer Deer at Wise Woman University ~ reweaving the healing cloak of the ancients.